(PHOTO CAPTION: RFK Jr. on The Today Show, Nov. 19, 2007)
KENNEDY WRITES A PROFILE IN COURAGE
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s latest book is a biography of Joshua Chamberlain — musician, linguist, professor, farmer, husband, father, soldier, and American patriot.
He’s currently making the rounds of talk shows to promote American Heroes: Joshua Chamberlain and the American Civil War, appearing on NBC’s Today last week (see video link at the bottom of this article).
Kennedy also talked about the new book at some length on his weekly Air America broadcast, explaining why he felt so drawn to the story of Joshua Chamberlain’s life and what compelled him to write this book at this point in our nation’s history. Listen to the interview here. ( Bobby’s segment is in the first hour, about 40 minutes into the program.)
This book is Kennedy’s second in a series of books written for children. (His first was 2005’s St. Francis of Assisi – A Life of Joy) The inspiration for the initial American Heroes book is also rooted close to home, drawn from his childhood memories as well as his role as a father. From an early age, Kennedy was well-versed in war lore, in large part due to his family’s military service and their keen interest in the nation’s struggles to establish the freedoms we enjoy today.
“My Uncle Jack was fascinated with these ideals, particularly courage,” Kennedy told Publisher’s Weekly. “He was a war hero, as was my Uncle Joe. My father also served in World War II, though it was at the end. But he was a great military historian. Nearly every night at dinner he’d tell us of the great battles that changed history. Those stories absolutely entranced me as a child.”
The tradition of sharing these stories, though perhaps in a different manner, is now being passed to Kennedy’s own children. “I have six kids,” he noted. “We read every night and the thing that seems to grab my kids’ interest the most is history—stories of historical figures. There is no story that you could invent that would be as exciting as the real-life adventures of Joshua Chamberlain.”
Kennedy’s son Conor discovered this first hand when he began researching the Civil War hero for a fifth-grade research paper. “As I watched Conor’s fascination, it occurred to me that Chamberlain’s story would make a great children’s book,” Kennedy said. “Chamberlain was acting totally on principle. He was vehemently opposed to slavery and he walked away from a family he loved and a job he loved to defend the highest ideals of our country.”
Via these illustrated biographies, aimed at readers age 8-up, Kennedy hopes that kids will get excited about history as well as inform families of where history has brought us thus far. “A parent’s objective is to fill their children’s minds with noble thoughts,” he said. “The best way to do that is through stories of real people acting heroically. It’s important for Americans to remind ourselves of the ideals that made our country great.”
And so, with that in mind, we hope you will enjoy the following excerpt from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s new book, American Heroes: Joshua Chamberlain and the American Civil War:
Sometimes the fate of a nation rests upon the shoulders of a single courageous soul.
One day in July 1863, a young college professor named Joshua Chamberlain and a handful of gallant boys from Maine risked — and in some cases, gave — their lives to hold a few acres of rough, rocky soil on a Pennsylvania hilltop. Their heroic deeds saved our country from destruction. Their legacy is the United States of America, and the courage, character and goodness that make our country a great nation.
Had Chamberlain or his men faltered, even momentarily, during the fight for the Round Tops, our nation would have died at Gettysburg. After that battle, Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine buried their dead, side by side, in a single long grave. They memorialized each of their fallen comrades with a plank torn from an ammunition box and inscribed with the soldier’s name. As he completed this grim task, Chamberlain wistfully hoped that generations of Americans who “know us not” would come from afar, “to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them.”
I wrote this book in the hope that our children will put a higher value on America and its freedoms if they understand the high price at which these things were purchased by an earlier generation of our countrymen. The recitation of a glorious history and heroic deeds has the power to imbue us with noble thoughts and summons us to the ideals and courage that make America great.
In their efforts to improve our minds and elevate our souls, my parents encouraged their 11 children to read history and learn about the great heroes of the past. My father, an avid military historian, told us, over dinner, the stories of important battles like Bunker Hill, the Cowpens, and Bull Run. Our family visited the decisive battlefields of the Revolution and the Civil War. On one of these trips, to Gettysburg, we heard the story of the citizen soldier Joshua Chamberlain.
Chamberlain epitomized the best qualities of the American character. He was a hardworking farmer; a poet and a musician; a linguist, writer and theologian. He was educated and idealistic. He was self-reliant, kind, fair and decent. He had character, integrity and manners. He loved America and was willing to sacrifice his life and fortune for our country. His astounding feats of daring in the nation’s time of greatest peril compare with epic deeds of the warriors of ancient times and legend.
The extraordinary thing is how common these virtues were in so many of those who fought in the Civil War, on both sides. Indeed, the Civil War is the story of millions of acts of heartbreaking gallantry. Chamberlain and his contemporaries faced crises far more dire than any known to this generation. More than 620,000 American soldiers died in that conflict, a catastrophe equivalent to the loss of 5.7 million Americans relative to the country’s population today. Our nation faced imminent destruction. Whole cities were besieged and ruined; our countryside was immolated; railroads and roads destroyed. Yet, the Americans fighting for the Union cause did not compromise their principles or their commitment to justice. They never dismissed their vision of a noble and just America as if it were a luxury that we could no longer afford. Their dauntlessness transformed the Civil War from America’s gravest and most tragic episode into our country’s finest hour. Its successful prosecution required great national sacrifice, the guidance of Providence, and extraordinary heroics by thousands of citizens, from President Lincoln to the lowest infantryman. Their efforts saved the Union and abolished slavery, which had torn the moral fiber of our young republic. They helped confirm America as the generous, principled nation we became in our own eyes — and in the eyes of the world. When he spoke of the war, Chamberlain referred to it, in the common parlance of the day, as “the noble cause.” Chamberlain and his soldiers fought the war to preserve not just the solidarity but the virtues of our nation — our idealism, faith, optimism, decency and commitment to justice. The most conspicuous quality of these men was courage.
In the view of earlier American generations, courage was practically synonymous with freedom; fear, after all, was the instrument of tyrants. As Franklin Roosevelt later put it, the greatest enemy of our treasured freedom is “fear itself.” Every once in a while, we Americans need to remind ourselves that we are the land of the free precisely because we are the home of the brave! A nation of great ideals can be preserved only by sacrifice and courage. I grew up thinking of Americans as the bravest people on earth. Americans, our civics instructors taught us, were guided by principle and willing to sacrifice all to preserve our rights and liberty.
It is the fantastic bravery of a long line of stalwarts like Joshua Chamberlain, and their love of principle, their commitment to ideals, and their willingness to sacrifice, which has defined our people and guided our nation’s destiny. It’s worth considering today how grievously we would dishonor the memory of these gallant heroes if we should ever let America become a nation governed by fear, or if we willingly compromised the rights they gave so much to guarantee.
—Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
CONTINUED: Chapter 1: “JUST DO IT!”
Read more from the new book and watch the Today Show interview with RFK Jr. on MSNBC
Buy the book at Amazon.com
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